First generation college students break ground at Middlebury

MIDDLEBURY—Eighteen-year-old Clara Loftis, of West Palm Beach, Fla., has just completed her first day at Middlebury College. She’s excited about the two classes she took today, intermediate Spanish and a first year seminar. And she’s looking forward to starting psychology and chemistry tomorrow.
“It was good. I’m definitely feeling Middlebury is the place for me,” she said.
It’s not just the first day of college for Loftis, it is the first day anyone in her family has attended college.
She is one of the 13-14 percent of the incoming class at Middlebury that are first-generation college students.
First-generation students can face many financial, academic and social barriers to entering and completing college. The Postsecondary National Policy Institute points out that these young people are the first in their families to navigate college admissions, financial aid and postsecondary coursework. They are likelier to attend two-year schools, attend part-time, enroll in for-profit schools, come from low-income backgrounds, and take six years or more to complete college degrees.
Undaunted by statistics, Loftis is moving into her first year on campus with confidence.
“If you’re motivated enough no matter what background you have, no matter what experience you’ve had you will go to college. You will do what you desire,” she said.
Loftis has been buoyed in her family’s first step into a college classroom by her participation in Middlebury’s pre-orientation program for first-generation college students: First@Midd.
“I definitely think First@Midd has impacted me more than I can express in words,” Loftis said. “It was so nice to have, honestly, a second family. That’s the people I hang out with now; that’s my friend group. It was really nice to be able to talk to people who know what you’re experiencing. It definitely gave me a sense of belonging here.”
The program also helped her see something that could be stigmatized in a whole new light.
“Being a first gen — some people see as a huge disadvantage. But to me, I now see it as a huge opportunity because I came here without really any help. I did the work on my own. I pushed myself to do it,” Loftis said.
“You just can’t take things for granted. Maybe a lot of people do, but I know first gens definitely don’t.”
Now in its second year, First@Midd gives students four and a half days together before classes start to get themselves rooted at the college.
During that first week at college, the program introduces students to the full range of campus services: healthcare, financial aid, learning resources, and internship and study abroad opportunities. It takes them on a campus tour. It connects them with campus specialists in time management, self-advocacy and life skills. Entering first gens meet with faculty. They have breakfast with college President Laurie Patton. They move into their dorm rooms. They get to talk candidly with peer leaders — student-to-student only — about what life on campus is really like.
There were also fun activities. They danced together, played games together, ate pizza together.
“I don’t know what I would have done without it,” Loftis said. “I would have been here, but I feel like I would have been way more isolated.”
Jennifer Herrera is associate director of Middlebury’s Anderson Freeman Resource Center, which sponsors First@Midd and all programming to support students from historically underrepresented backgrounds. She said the new students in First@Midd “start to unpack their hopes and fears” during that first week together.
Herrera and AFRC Director Roberto Sagarena both observed that students also get welcomed to a second home away from home at the Anderson Freeman Resource Center. The center provides a place to just hang out and feel welcome and connected.
Herrera noted that “first generation” is a category at Middlebury that defies boundaries.
“They are the most diverse cohort that exists,” she said. “They come from all backgrounds … They come from rural Vermont to the Midwest, both coasts, up and down the middle of America, rural, urban and every place in between. Their socioeconomic status runs the spectrum. Their racial and ethnic backgrounds run the spectrums. The types of high schools they went to run the spectrum.”
Of those roughly 100 incoming first-gen students at Middlebury this year, 50 attended First@Midd.
Sagarena, himself a high school dropout who went on to get a PhD from Princeton, reflected on the importance of mentorship to young adults’ success.
“I never thought I would go to college,” Sagarena said. But he made his way to a local community college, where a conversation with a staff member changed his life.
“She explained what it took to get into the University of California system. So I worked my butt off — this was in my 20s — and got into Santa Cruz. It was that one counselor who made all the difference. Those kinds of small interventions can have life changing consequences.”
Senior Maria Del Sol Nava is a first-generation college student who served as a First@Midd peer leader this year and last.
Nava is the second oldest of four siblings, all born and raised in Los Angeles. Her parents had minimal education and came to the United States seeking a better life for their family. From an early age, Nava’s parents instilled the idea that they had to work hard and get a good education.
Nava’s dad is an auto mechanic, her mom a homemaker.
“My dad was like, ‘We didn’t have the privilege to go to school. This is the only way that you’re not going to work the kind of job that I work. I don’t want you to be a mechanic. That is not what I want for you,’” she said. “We were definitely forced to be good students, which I think is a good thing.”
When Nava arrived at the Burlington airport for the first time three years ago, alone with just her suitcases, she didn’t even know how she would get to campus. Luckily, she saw other students with Middlebury t-shirts and hopped a ride.
Her first semester, especially, was tough, she said. She didn’t know about most campus resources. She didn’t know how to ask faculty for help. She didn’t even know the right questions to ask. She felt, too, that she was looking for a friend group that could help her feel happy and supported.
Nava persisted and found her way.
“Giving up has never been an option,” Nava said. “Going home was not an option. My parents instilled that in me and I couldn’t let them down.”
A turning point for her was joining the Evolution Dance Crew, a dance group that welcomes all body types, all levels of experience and that embraces urban, Caribbean, Latin American and African dance.
After trial and error, Nava found her major: math and Italian. Last year, she studied abroad in Florence.
Paying it forward as a First@Midd peer leader has been a real joy, Nava said.
“It’s been an amazing opportunity. I feel like these kids are going to have such a better start than I did,” she said. “And it just made me so happy because it was a way to empower them and their experience — just knowing that it could be a little bit easier.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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